Teaching and Learning Observations

One of the duties of my role is to “undertake an extensive programme of lesson observations”. This is a task I greatly enjoy and not an altogether new assignment. In my former life as a Head of Department lesson observations were an annual duty as part of Performance Reviews. However, I was always left dissatisfied with the focus on accountability rather than the craft of the classroom. Certainly more time was taken up with the nuts and bolts of performance management than having a proper discussion on teaching and learning. Ultimately this would often leave both parties involved in the process a little short-changed when it comes to actually reflecting on the observed lesson; more a case of box ticking than profound contemplation.

Therefore it was a very happy coincidence that the eminently sensible Dawn Cox was at hand with advice. Last year she blogged on how lesson observations were often divorced from what really mattered. This was just as I was coming to similar conclusions and yet here it was in black and white, with a clarity and directness my own thoughts lacked. Dawn highlighted a list of some of the worst points of lesson observations. Some of these points I could identify having occurred when I have been observed and also, more distressingly, some mistakes I have made when observing as a HoD. To improve what is a vital and omnipresent part of teaching she suggested several ideas; these got me thinking about what lesson observations should really focus on.

Before I describe and explain my adaptations of Dawn’s ideas it should be pointed out that as Head of Teaching and Learning my observations are completely decoupled from performance management. I go out of my way to make these as stress-free as possible, including the option to say no to the observation (most colleagues are pleased to invite me in…I think!) and no need to provide any planning or paperwork. Listed below are three distinct stages that my ideal teaching and learning observation would comprise:

  1. Pre-observation – teacher and observer sit down to agree and discuss a lesson to observe. This discussion would cover what the teacher of the lesson would like to take from the observation. The focus would therefore come from the observee / teacher not the observer. Alternatively the observation could have a more general focus, if the observee wishes.
  2. Observation – this would be recorded in the narrative style, listing actions that have occurred during the lesson. This objective viewpoint would then form the main stimulus for stage three of the observation. Additionally, and with the observee’s permission (agreed during the pre-observation meeting), student work would be looked at and specific students spoken to during the lesson in an attempt to glean more information.
  3. Post-observation – a formal meeting between the teacher and observer. The observer would act both as a sounding board as well as bringing constructive ideas to the discussion, sharing the narrative record of the lesson and any other relevant information.

Time. It always comes back to time with any new idea in teaching. In practice I had to almost abandon stage one due to lack of time, particularly mutually free time. In the picture below you can see the top section is called “arrangement of observation”; this can be as simple as “via email”. Sadly it has been almost impossible to schedule a meeting before and after an observation; I feel that of the two the post-discussion is more vital to the process.

Overall image

Here is an anonymised scan of section 1. As stated before it is incredibly difficult to have the pre-observation discussion, however, I feel that this section should still have some role in the form. So, like the human appendix, it is there shrivelled and of no real use hanging on in vestigial format.

Section 1

From the same lesson is the narrative account, making up section 2. Note the post-it note box, which I use to record my musings. In this anonymised version it states “A picture tells 1,000 words!” and “Live marking – in front of student”. Both of these I picked up during the lesson and wished to remember for the Teaching and Learning newsletter, used to share good practice. The narrative record is split into two columns and has notes on what was going on.

Section 2

Finally the third section shows my attempts at noting down the major discussion points during the debrief. To write everything down would detract from the reflection, certainly it is difficult to be in the moment when trying to scribble down each point. This lack of comprehensive notation is a nod to Dawn’s proposed coaching suggestion and very much the essential part of feeding back observation details. However, the point detailed below were all discussed and considered in one way or another. I believe it is important to have the signatures to show that this is an official observation, albeit divorced from performance management, and also gives a more formal ending to the process.

Section 3

This post-lesson discussion actually led to me arranging a second observation to watch the same teacher with the same class (hence the “Tue p2” scribble) as part of a longer reflection on teaching and learning.

Should anyone be interested I am more than happy to share the blank pro-forma. Essentially I have tried to shape teaching and learning observations to best suit the observee. As with everything this is an ongoing process and very much of the ‘design-refine-redesign’ model of formative evaluation. My thanks go to Dawn Cox for providing the inspiration in her original blog post. Although I have adapted it and focused on just three of the key points, it is very much the offspring of her thoughts.

DID YOU KNOW??? Dawn was a presenter at the St Albans School Forum on Education on Saturday 28th May. Follow @SASForumEd to keep up to date!

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